2X4 Interviews
2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.

Run an interview series long enough and you start to see trends emerge. In the case of these 2×4 interviews, a clear, recurring theme has emerged. Those who tell me that they “aren’t all that creative” when I request the interview end up offering some of the best perspective of the series. Today’s interviewee, Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter, is no exception.

I first learned of Gabe’s work through fellow 2×4 participant David Sparks’ Mac Power Users podcast. He tends to focus in on an app and learns how to make the most out of it. It was his impressive efforts with Keyboard Maestro that caught David and his co-host Katie Floyd’s attention. When they wanted to do a full episode on Keyboard Maestro, they decided to bring him in to guide Mac users through the application. Gabe is not only knowledgable, but he excels at making things clear in a way that even the code-free amongst us can benefit.

I’d go on, but frankly, I’m just keeping you from some excellent answers to some rather straightforward questions. So without further ado, here’s one of my favorite entries to date in this series courtesy of Gabe Weatherhead from Macdrifter.

Creativity

Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

I think everyone is a creative person. It’s what defines us as human beings. We can’t escape it. Anyone that has found themselves stuck in a bathroom without tissue knows how creative they can be.

In all seriousness, it’s my opinion that, as we become adults, we become more effective at pushing down creativity in exchange for efficiency. Occasionally those two aspects are mutually exclusive but some of us lack the ability to know when. I think when I am enjoying my work I am more creative because I’m not looking for a quick resolution. I’m looking for a better resolution. I have a good sense of my limits and no problem telling people “no.” The shorter my task list, the more freedom I have to be creative.

What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

I am a scientist by training and view problems through that lens. The natural world provides an essentially infinite supply of inspirational solutions to problems.

When thinking about problems, I tend to anthropomorphize the inanimate. I’ve always done this. When I was a chemist, I related to chemical reactions as human interactions. For example, I think about how one molecular construct has a preference for another. Or how two molecules might be encouraged to react by the right catalyst. Now that I spend more time being a hack programmer, I think in the same way. I say things like “how would this application talk to this one?” or “who needs to talk to this method and what language are they speaking?” Personally, I think this is what enables me to deal with extremely abstract ideas.

If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

My daughter is my single greatest achievement. But I have other things I like too. Oddly, I don’t really take pride in my posts at Macdrifter.com. I like writing there and try to do a good job, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at writing. What I do take pride in is making things people find useful. I really enjoy comments and emails where people share how they are using a small piece of something I’ve done. I do have a list of highlight posts but they are a list of things I had fun writing, rather than a list of what I think is good. I guess I just don’t respect my opinion much.

Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

Get over it. There’s no such thing. Some people have a better perception of shapes and colors or a steadier hand. That’s just biology. There are very few humans that are truly and uniquely inspired and that quality usually comes at a high price. As far as I know, only a serious brain injury can suddenly change our innate skills. I’ll skip that option.

I have three suggestions to have more fun doing better work.

I try to take the time to really appreciate things around me. At one point in my life, I enjoyed painting and sketching. Through that experience, I learned to stop and think about the shape and colors of things. I would wonder how I could reproduce a particular color or shadow effect. Now I try to do the same. When I read a Gruber article or a Horace analysis, I try to think about what makes it so good. What makes a superior sentence or argument?

It’s hard but I try to get to the nut first and then elaborate. Too often I will ramble (like now) before getting to my point. I’m more effective if I outline first and then go in and elaborate the thought or project. Afterward, I go back and cut unnecessary material.

Relax and enjoy the work. Just as there are few people that are uniquely skilled, there are also few jobs or problems that are actually critical. We’ve been screwing things up throughout history. There are very few bad choices that really matter on a grand scale. If I’m not enjoying the work, then I’m thinking about it too much or I’ve chosen the wrong work.

Productivity

Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

I’m a dad and a husband first and I’m a “Lead Systems Engineer” second. I have no idea what that title is supposed to mean. My daily job is to plan, design and implement software solutions for research scientists at a pharmaceutical company. I focus on things like chemistry applications and electronic laboratory notebooks. My job is a hybrid between project manager, scientist and software engineer. My day consists of Gantt charts, chemical structures and code (mostly Python/SQL/JavaScript/VBScript).

I have far too many hobbies to list but I brew and collect beer and enjoy Mac hacking. I prefer to teach myself something new before I will pay someone else to do it for me. That means I do a bit of everything. I cook, make cabinetry and wire networks. I’m not great at any of them, but it makes me appreciate a master at work.

How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

I try not to over-think it too much but my family always comes first. I have organized my schedule so I can come home early (I’m up by 4:30am). After work I get about an hour to practice code or work on a personal project before I pick up my daughter from school. My wife is in law school so I carry a bit more load at home. That means making dinner, giving baths and lots of dancing with a 3-year-old.

I forfeited what I would consider a successful career as a scientist to make sure my life was constructed around things that are important to me. That includes family, hobbies and principles. It’s liberating to know that I’ve already done some of the scariest things I will do in my life. Either that or I’m blissfully ignorant. I’ll take either.

What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

Here comes the nerdery. I use Markdown. A lot. It keeps my work structured but without making it overly complex or fiddly. I write emails in Markdown and I take notes in Markdown. It’s Markdown all the way down.

That leaves me plenty of time to fiddle with other applications though. I benefit from OmniFocus and the Reminders app with Siri. I’m forced to work in a locked Windows environment (read: NO DROPBOX) all day so I bridge that world with MS Exchange integration with iOS and Simplenote. So basically, I still rely on OS X and iOS even though 90% of my work is done on Windows.

I also think tinkering has received a bad rap. It’s disparaged as being unproductive or procrastination in some circles. I think it leads to discovery. It has provided me with a comfort and familiarity with my tools. It’s ok to sit and sharpen an axe if you intend to use it. I spend plenty of time writing little scripts to use while I write. It’s made me more comfortable in my chosen tools. Learning some amount of scripting has been incredibly valuable to me. Anyone can learn to write Python or Ruby. Not Perl though. That’s for the criminally insane.

I offload as much as I can to my iPad. Instead of keeping my mail open on my work computer, I use my iPad. It reduces the Pavlovian email response and keeps me focused on work. I occasionally take notes on paper but I always transcribe to my iPad. I also use my iPad for task management throughout the day. The iPad is the logical conclusion of the PalmPilot and OmniFocus is the pinnacle of task management on iOS.

What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?

I’m no expert. I’m also not comfortable saying what other people should do. For me, I find the things I enjoy and incorporate those into my work. I get more done when I enjoy the work. Sure, a nice pen doesn’t write more, but it will make me hold that pen more which precipitates more writing or sketching. The same goes for a well-designed app or webpage.

The single best thing I have done to help keep me organized was to get married. The second best thing was to get a ScanSnap scanner and go paperless as much as possible. I try to avoid any paper and I prefer to buy eBooks whenever I can.

Finally, I don’t follow movements. I prefer to focus on what makes me happy. I don’t cut things out to achieve an ideal. I just spend more time with the things I like. I do the parts of GTD I like. I don’t clean my desk to be minimal. I don’t have inbox-zero. Movements and mantras are insidious and counterproductive to me.

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